The coffee meeting is the Swiss Army knife of business networking. It’s a low-risk way to meet new people, swap advice, and lay the foundation to build a substantial relationship. You never know what might come from a simple coffee meeting.
If the concept is new to you, here's one guiding principle: time is a precious resource. Being clear, having a plan, and expressing gratitude are important.
Coffee meetings shouldn't be stressful. Here’s how to be conscientious about coffee and connecting – so you can start networking like a pro.
1. Be clear about your intentions.
When you ask to set up a meeting, avoid phrases like “pick your brain." Instead, introduce yourself, show you have specific knowledge of the person’s work, briefly explain why you’d like to talk, and offer potential times.
Here's a sample email:
[Your name] here, [your role and company]. I’ve been following your work and really enjoy [something they do]. I’d like to talk to you about [advice, connections, etc.]
Are you up for a coffee meeting sometime next week at [exact location]? I’m available [days and times you're free]. Thanks and hope to hear from you!
2. Do your homework.
Often when you meet someone, it’s typical to ask “What do you do? Where are you from?” That’s fine for your friend’s birthday party, but not for a coffee meeting.
It’s likely the busy person you ask for coffee has at least some public information, including social media profiles, articles, podcasts, and more. Coffee meetings are typically 30 minutes or less, so don’t waste time talking about subjects you could easily research beforehand. Additionally, a busy person has given their “elevator pitch” many times to press, colleagues, and others. Stand out by having a more in-depth, meaningful conversation during your short time together.
3. Arrive early.
Any meeting is about respecting the time of the other person. Double check the location. Leave early, with plenty of extra time for traffic or commuting. Being late for a meeting you set up can make you look irresponsible. Make sure to arrive at least 10 minutes early and grab a table, if possible. This can help eliminate headaches once your guest arrives.
4. Offer to pay.
Ask the other person what they’d like before placing your order. Pay for both. If you’re a student, they might not let you actually pay, but offer anyway. If the person strongly objects and wants to pay for their coffee, let them. Don’t spend more than five seconds on this interaction.
5. Cut the coffee itself.
Meetings over coffee are often for getting things done. But even if you meet at a coffee shop, you don’t have to get coffee. Whatever drink you get should take the same amount of time to consume as a cup of coffee. Tea is a good bet, and you can always ask for decaffeinated options. As for snacks, it’s hard to have a short conversation with a mouth full of croissants. But if they get a snack, get one for yourself too.
6. Have one clear, specific ask.
Let’s say you and I are deciding where to have dinner. I say, “I don’t know, I’m up for anything, I guess.” Frustrating, right? But if I say “I’m really in the mood for the Mexican place down the street. If you don’t like that, let’s get Thai downtown.” Now that's a solid start.
There was a reason you wanted to get coffee, so don’t be shy in telling them point-blank how they can help you. Being direct serves them better too. By accepting the meeting, they already agreed to help, so make it easy for them.
“I’m looking for an entry-level position as a junior designer at a small advertising firm like [firm x, firm y, or firm z]. Do you know anyone at those places?”
“Do you know of any literary agents looking for short young adult fiction?”
7. Add value.
Keep your ears open for anything you can help them with. You can also simply ask at the end of the conversation if there’s anything you can do. But the best way is to have this mindset during the actual conversation. Be authentic, and don't force it or overcommit.
Time is a precious resource. Being clear, having a plan, and expressing gratitude are important.
8. Take notes.
Bring a pen and a notebook for notes. Avoid using your phone. That way the person knows you're focused and engaged while you're together. Jot down people, places, things, and ideas that are mentioned and follow up. I like to create two columns on the paper with the headings “My Homework” and “Their Homework.” On the top of the page I write the person’s name, company, and the date.
Make a note or calendar reminder to follow up in 1-2 days.
9. End on time.
It’s likely you agreed to meet for 15 or 30 minutes. As those end time approaches, even if you're in the middle of a fruitful conversation, stop and ask the person if they have to go. If they agree to keep chatting, great. If your reminder kept them on schedule, even better. Respecting their time is important.
10. Follow up and stay connected.
Following up immediately after the meeting can be a tad aggressive, but don’t forget to do it within the next two days. In the follow-up, include anything you promised to send, as well as a gentle nudge on anything they offered. Don't forget to add the person on LinkedIn while you're still fresh in their mind.
“Hey Josh, it was great to meet you, thanks for being so generous with your time. Here are some of the things I mentioned:
[Insert items here].
Also, you mentioned you had a contact at [firm x]? I’d love to speak with [them], let me know if I can provide you with anything to make this easier.
After the follow-up email, set a calendar alert for 2-3 weeks later to check in again. Here, tell the person the results of anything they suggested.
“Hey Josh, I met with Mary, and we’re now discussing a possible freelance gig. Thanks again for the intro, and let me know if I can ever return the favor!”
Networking is a skill that's important for growing business relationships. Being respectful and intentional about coffee meetings can go a long way in making a great impression and building long-lasting relationships.
A version of this article was originally published on December 24, 2013.
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